Typhon went out to join in mortal combat with the locust eaters. His hundred heads brayed defiant fire. His hands grabbed the insects out of the air in clumps, and crushed them. The noise of his yelling threw their wing beats out of rhythm. The breath rasped in his hundred incandescent throats. Fifty of his mouths chewed on wriggling crispness.
Maybe it was those he ate that started him coughing. Over the years, he had breathed fragments of a thousand locusts into his massive lungs. Or maybe, like some ancient horse, his wind was simply broken. Titanic Typhon – who stood between Monstro City and destruction – was breathless these days, slow to recover between skirmishes. Right now he was coughing from every mouth, his solar plexus buckling. Some of his red-cheeked faces, in looking at one another in alarm, caught a bronchial faceful of fire - a dozen eyes were lost. Typhon, left with a blind spot to his left, slipped and went down.
The Echidna instantly took her husband’s place, along with a colony of giants, but they were quickly engulfed.
“Stories? You want stories?”
It was a small, high voice – a choirboy’s voice, not a cyclops’ or a giant’s. Hylas, standing on the top of a burial mound, two fists raised, holding a burning brand, was shouting so loud that his nose bled. “You want stories? I will tell you of Heracles and his Six Labours! I will tell you of the Argonauts and the Quest for the Golden Fleece! Of Orion and the all-gentle Asceepi – Aspeeli – Doctor. I will tell you of Odysseus and the Lotus Eaters and Argus and Deucalion and Polyxo and….” Hylas lobbed at the swarm every name he could call to mind.
The stories that clung to Hylas smelled new and piquant. The locusts’ antennae swivelled towards the smell. Leaving only the lightest dusting of insects on the giants, the swarm turned all its attention to Hylas. A haystack of insects capsized upon him - a tidal wave like the one that had set the collector’s house afloat
But Hylas had prepared his battle-ground. While Thoősa was restoring stories to their owners, Hylas had been busy. Between the graves of the dead monsters were troughs and pits scooped out in the making of the mounds. As the locusts converged on the boy with upraised fists, he let fall into these pits the burning branch he was holding. Fire leapt up like the ghosts of dead giants, as the crude oil in the hollows ignited and burned. Hylas had carried it there laboriously traipsing to and fro, to and fro using the shell of a turtloise for a bucket, fetching oil from the cavern’s passageway to prime his fire pits. The smallness of his voice was almost drowned out by the sudden flare-up, and a thousand locusts added to the spectacle as they too went up in flames.
It was over as quickly as it had begun. The plumes of flame dropped back down; the swarm had recoiled.
But it re-massed out on the plain.
For a second time Hylas unwound the slingshot from around his waist. Inside his head there was scarcely a thought. A buzz in his sinuses, a dizziness behind his eyes, a parched dryness in his mouth, but so little else that he thought the locust must already have stolen the contents of his head. Why was he afraid? He was eleven years old, by Zeus! Almost a grown man! How many times had Heracles introduced him to Death – taken him close enough to see the food stuck in Death’s teeth? By now he ought to have got used to it. Was he never ever going to learn not to mind? About getting killed? About the pain? Was he never going to learn to enjoy this fighting thing? Was he never going to grow into a hero? Tears of disgust and despair blurred his eyesight and eyesight is so important when the Enemy is coming! His body began to tremble so violently that he thought the locusts must already be inside him, jumping about.
At last the missing cyclopses came spilling up the passageway towards the cavern entrance: reinforcements. They were late because, when the swarm struck, they had been deep in the city’s serpentine suburbs, working at their forges. But they came at the run now, and with them came the Brass Man, dents smoothed, joints eased, coachwork polished. The cyclopses no longer led him by the wrist or slapped good naturedly at his thigh, for Talos had become untouchable. The brass of his torso was strangely flushed. The heat he gave off as he passed by made the monsters draw back, as from an open oven door. The dead plants lining the corridors crisped and curled. Brighter and brighter, hotter and hotter Talos stalked out now on to the burial mounds, the marshy ground drying suddenly to hay under his feet. Oil spills disappeared in flashes of fire. Placing himself in front of Hylas, he opened wide his arms to welcome the onslaught of locusts. His fingers beckoned them on. He turned his face aside, bent his knees to resist the impact of a million locusts.
And he glowed incandescent.
The smell was of swear-words burning. The air filled with steam clouds. With no more reasoning power than rags, the scattered locusts felt no panic, no pang of defeat. They were simply disorientated and flew off hither and yon, making a hideous rattle like buttons in a bag.
They would be back. Instinct would draw them back to feed on Story. But for the time being, a great silence fell over the burial grounds of Monstro.
Then murmurs of surprise grew into whoops of surprised triumph, as its citizens realised the day had been saved. Hylas’ nauseous beauty was overlooked; his trespassing forgotten. Even his theft of the lyre was forgiven him. Everyone suddenly burst out cheering.
“How did you do that?” asked Thoősa clambering up the grave mound to hug him. “Are you all right? Do you still know who I am? How many fingers am I holding up? What’s your name? Do you remember the water nymphs in the pond? Do you remember the Sirens?”
And Hylas found he did - found he still remembered all six of the Labours Heracles had completed. So the locusts had not overrun him. His shaking subsided.
“You were wonderful,” said Thoősa decidedly.
Hylas looked around him at the barbarous dregs of Monstro, maimed and muscle-bound and mangy, many probably mad. They were cheering him, banging their weapons together, stamping their feet, yelping and yodelling. Those with tails wagged them. Prince Typhon, having briefly tasted old age, wore a look of torment on every one of his heads. But the other monsters were happy to rejoice. The boy and the Brass Man had turned the tide of battle.
Hylas could not understand it. Had they not seen how scared he was? Had they not seen how puny-useless he was in comparison with Heracles or any one of the Argonauts?
“I didn’t know you could use a slingshot!” Thoősa kept saying.
“Oh, you know. You pick things up.”
“Look. Look, you’re a hero! A hero, look! “
It was a good sight. A happy sight. The scorching adrenalin cooled in his stomach. Talos cooled in the breeze. No one else used the term ‘hero’ - in Monstro it seemed to be an unspeakably filthy word - but that is how they were looking at him: as if he was a hero. They crowded forward, a noisy, thronging, barking, snorting, gulping, laughing mob. The Lamia had wound him a crown of laurel leaves. She crammed it on to his head then her hands slid to his throat as, sobbing and smiling and praising him, she took the opportunity to try and strangle him. She let go, though, as a bigger hand by far lifted Hylas into the air.
The boy thought at first he was being raised shoulder-high, but Talos lifted him far higher than that. For the first time, Hylas was in a position to see what else the cyclopses had achieved in their workshops. A long slit now ran horizontally across the lower half of Talos’ face. Dense hog bristles had been inserted top and bottom, to keep out arrows or nuisance insects: they looked a little like a moustache. But beyond the slit, within the jaw cavity, the cyclopses had worked greater wonders.
“TALOS KNOWS YOU,” said the Brass Man, speaking his very first words. He held Hylas close to first one eye then the other. “YOU CAME WITH THE OTHERS. YOU’RE ONE OF THEM.”
Hylas smiled encouragingly and nodded. (Perhaps the locusts had nibbled into Talos’ memory and he was struggling to recall.) “With Thoősa, that’s right! And the Dream Bringer, yes, and the Oracle and the Doctor’s Daughter... We all came here togeth- .”
“NO!” shouted Talos in his face. His new tongue could be glimpsed through his nose holes, struggling with speech. Rs were beyond him. “BEFORE. TALOS SAW. YOU THWOO THE SCWOO.” (The Brass Man hesitated, tasting the oddness of poetry in his mouth. “THWEW THE SCWEW,” he repeated, and his bristles bristled. “YOU CAME WITH THE OTHERS. BOATFU’ OF WAWWIORS. YOU KILLED TALOS.”